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Armenia: one of the most successful voluntary naturalisations in recent decades

Briefing Notes, 6 February 2004

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 February 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In one of the most successful voluntary naturalisations of refugees in recent decades, the number of refugees from Azerbaijan obtaining Armenian citizenship reached 65,000 by the end of January 2004.

The naturalised refugees were among the 360,000 ethnic Armenians who arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1993 as a result of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. With no resolution in sight for the Nagorno-Karabakh situation, the government and UNHCR have focused on helping refugees integrate locally in Armenia. Local integration is, of course, one of the three main solutions that we seek for refugees the other two being repatriation or resettlement to a third country. Naturalisation became an option for the refugees in 1995 with the enactment of a citizenship law containing special provisions to make naturalisation much easier for refugees from Azerbaijan. UNHCR supported the process with financial and material assistance to regional government offices to help with administration and paperwork.

At first, relatively low numbers of refugees came forward, mainly due to a lack of awareness of the right to naturalise and of the necessary procedures. In 1999, UNHCR began an information campaign in conjunction with the government to better inform refugees of this option. In part thanks to this campaign, the numbers shot upwards, with nearly 8,000 naturalising in 1999. Another incentive for naturalisation came after July 2000, as former Soviet passports could no longer be used for travel outside of Armenia. Citizenship allows refugees to obtain an Armenian passport. The numbers nearly doubled in 2000, with more than 15,600 naturalisations, followed by another 16,300 in 2001. More than 17,400 others naturalised over the next two years, and the more than 300 new citizens in January, 2004 pushed the total to over 65,000 since 1995.

Other large-scale voluntary naturalizations of refugees in the past include over 8,000 Guatemalans in Mexico since 1996, and 36,000 Rwandans in Tanzania in 1980.




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Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's achievements in granting citizenship to thousands of stateless people over the last two years make the country a global leader in ending and preventing statelessness.

Left stateless after the 1975 collapse of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, nearly 1,400 former Cambodian refugees received citizenship in Viet Nam in 2010, the culmination of five years of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vietnamese government. Most of the former refugees have lived in Viet Nam since 1975, all speak Vietnamese and have integrated fully. Almost 1,000 more are on track to get their citizenship in the near future. With citizenship comes the all-important family registration book that governs all citizens' interactions with the government in Viet Nam, as well as a government identification card. These two documents allow the new citizens to purchase property, attend universities and get health insurance and pensions. The documents also allow them to do simple things they could not do before, such as own a motorbike.

Viet Nam also passed a law in 2009 to restore citizenship to Vietnamese women who became stateless in the land of their birth after they married foreign men, but divorced before getting foreign citizenship for them and their children.

UNHCR estimates that up to 12 million people around the world are currently stateless.

Statelessness in Viet Nam

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

Most of the people working on the hundreds of tea plantations that dot Sri Lanka's picturesque hill country are descended from ethnic Tamils brought from India between 1820 and 1840 when the island was under British colonial rule. Although these people, known as "Hill Tamils," have been making an invaluable contribution to Sri Lanka's economy for almost two centuries, up until recently the country's stringent citizenship laws made it next to impossible for them to berecognized as citizens. Without the proper documents they could not vote, hold a government job, open a bank account or travel freely.

The Hill Tamils have been the subject of a number of bilateral agreements in the past giving them the option between Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship. But in 2003, there were still an estimated 300,000 stateless people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka.

Things improved markedly, in October 2003, after the Sri Lankan parliament passed the "Grant of Citizenship to People of Indian Origin Act," which gave nationality to people who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1964 and to their descendants. UNHCR, the government of Sri Lanka and local organizations ran an information campaign informing Hill Tamils about the law and the procedures for acquiring citizenship. With more than 190,000 of the stateless people in Sri Lanka receiving citizenship over a 10-day period in late 2003, this was heralded as a huge success story in the global effort to reduce statelessness.

Also, in 2009, the parliament passed amendments to existing regulations, granting citizenship to refugees who fled Sri Lanka's conflict and are living in camps in India. This makes it easier for them to return to Sri Lanka if they so wish to.

Statelessness in Sri Lanka: Hill Tamils

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